Features

Julie Allinson, president of eyebobs

Not So Lonely at the Top

The Women Presidents' Organization connects and serves Minnesota's women leaders

By Kevyn Burger
12-23-2015

No matter what Julie Allinson is doing — brainstorming, buying, budgeting — you can bet she will be wearing a cool pair of spectacles while she does it.

Allinson, 57, is president of eyebobs, a Minneapolis-based company with 30 employees and an expanding international presence. She founded the business in 2001 after squinting at a spreadsheet, and then shopping for those glasses often called readers or cheaters.

“They either cost $400 at an optical shop or $12.95 at a drug store,” she says. “I didn’t know eyeglasses from a tennis shoe, but I knew there would be interest in reading glasses that were hip and didn’t cost a fortune.”

Because eyebobs is privately held, Allinson does not disclose revenues, but does report that her company’s growth is surging.

“We ship more product every morning than we did in my entire first year,” she says.    

Allinson has a close cadre of women who’ve helped her keep an eye on her startup. Eight years ago, she joined the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO), a membership group for women presidents, CEOs, and managing directors of privately held, multimillion-dollar companies.

“I was looking for a peer group where I could say, here are my troubles, here’s what I’m proud of,” Allinson says. “I don’t have the same kind of business as the other women in my group, but we share many similar issues. We’ve become each other’s confidantes and sounding boards.”

Minnesota’s strong culture of female entrepreneurship has turned the local WPO into a powerhouse. Since arriving in the Twin Cities a dozen years ago, the organization has mushroomed into six local chapters with 20 members each; there’s a waiting list of successful women business owners eager to form the seventh.

The WPO has 125 chapters on six continents, but only New York City has more members than Minneapolis-St. Paul.

“These women are the decision-makers for their businesses. They are responsible for the paychecks their employees earn and for maintaining the core values of their company,” says Myrna Marofsky, the professional chapter chair who facilitates three of the groups. “They are tough and serious; there are no hobby businesses. When they get to that place at the top, they’re looking for a group where they can be real.”

The WPO sets up every chapter to include women from diverse industries, and no member is in a group with a competitor. The groups meet monthly for several hours, diving deep into strategic issues ranging from finance to managing employees to making tough decisions.

The chapters meet in the offices of Minneapolis accounting firm Lurie LLP. The firm’s managing partner, Beth Kieffer Leonard, is a founding member of the first Minnesota WPO group, and persuaded the firm to provide space to support the efforts of high-achieving female stakeholders.

“We needed an answer to the old boys network,” says Leonard, who notes that the group’s connections were particularly valuable during the down years of the recession.

“We were all working desperately to keep our businesses, to keep from cutting too many people. We knew we had to grow our way up and out of it,” she says. “Our discussions let people know they were not alone when they were in the throes of it. The camaraderie was invaluable; I think there would have been a different outcome for some of these companies if we wouldn’t have had each other.”

The national organization was founded in 1997 by Marsha Firestone, who has a long career in development with women-led businesses and a PhD in communications.

“Through my research,” says Firestone, “I knew that small groups make good decisions when they work together. I envisioned an educational organization to help women be more effective in their decision making. I want them to share their expertise, to bring their genius to their peer group. We want these meetings to be so beneficial and effective that people never want to miss one.”

Firestone set up the organization to use the roundtable format, with trained facilitators keeping the members focused on strategic conversations. The women are encouraged to share experiences rather than give advice.

“We see this as an incubator for women entrepreneurs,” says Sue Hawkes, the other chapter chair who facilitates three Minnesota groups. “The peer learning part is the secret sauce. They need a space where they can be vulnerable, and that’s not a face they can show very much. They are with other goal-setters and risk-takers who are seasoned and successful, so they can let their guard down. There’s no BS.”

“What we are learning in the research is that women lead differently than men. They’re more collaborative, less hierarchical,” says Rebecca Hawthorne, co-author of the annual Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership which looks at women’s appointments to boards and senior leadership teams. She’s also the director of the Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.

She sees the entrepreneur’s life becoming more appealing to women.

“As they move up the professional ladder, we see many women departing to start their own businesses. They want flexibility and to define success on their own terms. Women who are satisfied with their success want to be with peers who are also satisfied.” The women pay $1,800 in annual dues. Minnesota’s youngest WPO member is 29 and the oldest is 72; most are based in the Metro area but a few make the monthly trek to their meetings from greater Minnesota and one travels from Iowa.

While their circumstances and business philosophies vary, their gender gives them common ground.

“Because I work primarily with men, I like to be in a group of women business owners. I think we make decisions differently,” says Victoria Raymond, 55, CFO of Plymouth-based Prototype and Production Systems, which has $5 million in annual revenues. She and her husband own the business, which designs and manufactures digital inkjet printing systems.

“My chapter is like my board of directors. As we get to know each other better, the level of trust deepens. You feel like you can really count on these people for good advice and guidance.”

The national WPO organization reports the average revenue of members is $13.5 million. The size and age of businesses represented within chapters varies, as does the individual’s expertise.

“It’s a two-way street, you get and you give. I’m able to bring something to the table and at the same time, these entrepreneurs have taught me so much over the years,” says Susan Denk, 58, founder and general manager of White Crane Construction, a Minneapolis remodeling and design firm with $3 million in annual revenue. “They get me. You relate in a way that you can’t with your employees or other people in your life; the friends you play golf with don’t own businesses.”

The connection that begins in meetings often deepens into something more profound than professional relationships. In addition to workplace issues, many of the women say they’ve found kindred spirits for personal issues — the challenges of balance, aging parents, making succession plans.

Julie Allinson calls it a sisterhood, and finds that those bonds are what she’s come to value most.

“I’ve developed really deep friendships. They know me and my business so well because they’ve listened to me for so long. I can go around the circle and know with confidence that I could call any of them if I needed them. That’s a good feeling.”

WOMEN OF THE WPO

Melissa Veeser
Owner and president
Jeanie Premium Products Inc.
Years in WPO: 1
Headquarters: Wayzata
Inception: 2001
Industry: Manufacturing
Revenue: < $5 million
Description: Distributor of diamond and carbide tooling and super abrasives for the medical, ophthalmic, military/defense and aerospace industries
Advice: “Being a woman in a male dominated industry is not necessarily beneficial nor detrimental — it’s really all about your belief in the purpose and your attitude.”

Kendis Scharenbroich
Vice president, Pro-West & Associates Inc.
Years in WPO: 1
Headquarters: Walker
Inception: 1987
Industry: Geographical Information Systems (GIS)
Revenue: $3-5 million
Description: Provides location technology services for local, state and federal governments in the U.S.
Advice: “No matter what the industry, learn about location and how it contributes to decision making, and your career will soar.”

Martha Pomerantz
Partner and portfolio manager, Evercore Wealth Management
Years in WPO: 2.5
Headquarters: New York
Inception: 2008
Industry: Wealth Management
Revenue: Undisclosed
Description: Provide integrated financial planning, investment management, trust and fiduciary services — as well as private wealth education to individual clients, families and foundations.
Advice: “My success was dependent on my intellectual abilities, my determination to never give up and my ongoing dedication to my clients.”

Margaret Johnson
Co-owner, Sojos
Years in WPO: 1
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Inception: 1985
Industry: Pet Food
Revenue: Undisclosed
Description: Manufacturer of dog/cat food/treats
Advice: “My advice is to NOT be intimidated by the predominantly male business owners. Learn from them, but also seek out the women.”

Vicki Raport
Co-founder, Quantum Retail Technology, Inc. (acquired by Versata in Oct. 2015)
Years in WPO: 5
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Inception: 2004 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Software and Technology services for Retail Industry
Description: Provides retail-focused supply chain management and inventory optimization
Advice: “Being a woman is one of many perspectives that add value and richness to a culturally diverse business environment.”

Marie Bak
CEO, SDQ Ltd.
Years in WPO: 10+
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Inception: 1983 Revenue: $29-35 Million
Industry: Building Maintenance and Building Service Contractors
Description: Full-service commercial janitorial and building maintenance
Advice: “As a woman, early on I felt I had a constant head wind to work through. Today the environment has changed and that perseverance allowed me to break through the glass ceiling.”

J. Marie Fieger
President, Nemer Fieger
Years in WPO: 2
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Inception: 1957 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Media and public relations
Description: Provides media planning and buying, public relations, creative services, special events, corporate social responsibility programs, and strategic marketing solutions.
Advice: “I believe that a great leader, male or female, uses all their gifts of intelligence, experience, intuition, active listening, shared passion and team support to reach the highest level of success."

Ann Johnson
President, Professional Engineering Services
Years in WPO: 1
Headquarters: St. Louis Park
Inception: 1995 Revenue: $1-2 Million
Industry: Civil Engineering Consulting
Description: Provides civil engineering design and construction inspection services to mostly public agencies on heavy/highway, transit and environmental engineering projects.
Advice: “Be assertive and believe in your abilities.”

Lisa Lavin
Co-founder and CEO, Anser Innovation
Years in WPO: 3
Headquarters: Burnsville
Inception: 2011 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry:  Internet-based Consumer Electronics
Description: We are creating the means to remotely interact with those who are technologically challenged.
Advice:
1) Step over your fear and keep moving forward.
2) Spend as much time as you can with people smarter than you.
3) Bad things happen. Don’t take it personally.”

Dawn Brommer
Owner and investor, Dawn Brommer Negotiation LLC, Living Wellness LLC, Maxxon Corp (former owner)
Years in WPO: 4
Headquarters: Otsego
Inception: 2014 (Dawn Brommer Negotiation), 2015 (Living Wellness), 1972 (Maxxon Corp) Revenue: $50 Million
Industry: Negotiation, Nutrition/Wellness, Construction
Description: Dawn Brommer Negotiation provides a negotiation framework that can be used both professionally and personally.
Living Wellness is a program that takes your reality and integrates it into your total wellness plan.  
Maxxon started the industry of floor underlayment products
Advice: “What is the difference between significance and success? I spent most of my life in construction focused on success. Now my focus is all about significance and meaning.”

Camille Thomas
President, JMC Retail Group
Years in WPO: 11
Headquarters: St. Louis Park
Inception: 1995 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Consumer Products
Description: Serves as a product development/logistics/sales team partner for national, international and private-label brands in the mass merchant retail channel.
Advice: “Women are smart, strategic, thoughtful and diligent. We don’t quit — not on each other, not on our families, not on our business.”

Kate McRoberts
Managing partner, Kate McRoberts
Years in WPO: 1
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Inception: 1999 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Business Consulting
Description: Helps organizations capitalize on change and how they interact with customers.
Advice: “Learn the art of asking really good questions to help others think in new ways. Seeking to understand can be far more powerful than seeking to be understood.”
 
Amelia Mata
CEO/owner, Hennepin Home Health Care (HHHC) Inc. & Under the Weather (UTW)
YEARS IN WPO: 8
Hennepin Home Health Care
Headquarters: Brooklyn Park
Inception: 1971 Revenue: > $10 million
Industry: Home Health Care
Description: Provides nursing, therapy, mental health, aide/homemaker services to the elderly, disabled and mentally ill within their homes.

Under the Weather
Headquarters: Brooklyn Park
Inception: 2004 Revenue: > $10 million
Industry: Child Care
Description: Provides care to mildly ill children in the home and at their center in Brooklyn Park, so that parents can be at work.
Advice: “When they say it’s lonely at the top, it’s especially true for women. Having a peer group like WPO allows me to be open and vulnerable without worrying about being judged.”

Karla Leis
VP & GM, Orbio Technologies Group (a business unit of Tennant Company)
Years in WPO: 1
Headquarters: St. Louis Park
Inception: 2009 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Sustainable Cleaning Technologies
Description: Provides effective cleaning and disinfecting using everything from automatic floor scrubbing machines to spray bottles.
Advice: “The characteristics of successful business people have nothing to do with gender. People who deliver results by combining strong communication skills, passion for what they do and resilience with strong functional and authentic leadership skills have the opportunity to be successful in any industry.”

Jeri Meola
President, SMS Research Advisors
Years in WPO: 10
Headquarters: Eden Prairie
Inception: 1989 Revenue: $1-5 million
Industry: Market Research
Description: Market research firm that helps Fortune 500 companies get great results when using “Voice of The Customer” insights. 
Advice: “My greatest business honor was the NAWBO Lifetime Achievement Award.”

Kathy Longo
President & founder, Flourish Wealth Management
Years in WPO: 7
Headquarters: Edina
Inception: 2014 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Wealth Management
Description: An independent, fee-only, boutique wealth management firm.
Advice: “The wealth management industry offers incredible opportunity for young women as the industry is heavily weighted toward older male advisors; studies show that there will be a shortage of planners in the future.”

Amy Zaroff
Owner & creative director, Amy Zaroff Events + Design
Years in WPO: 3
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Inception: 2004 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Event Planning and Design
Description: We create life’s most memorable experiences through corporate, non-profit and social event planning, experiential marketing and graphic design.
Advice: “Being a woman in my industry is not uncommon. But being a woman who is not afraid to be a game changer has been more of a challenge. I am proud of my voice and my willingness to take risks, make new rules and create a culture of innovation and change.”

Jane Caris
President, The Kirschner Group Inc.
Years in WPO: <1
Headquarters: Valencia, Cal.
Inception: 1983 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Professional Beauty Industry
Description: Sales organization/manufacturer representation.
Advice: “My advice to young women in any industry is to leverage your resources, connections and relationships, and to be available to offer reciprocal support.  In business, as in life, you will ‘reap what you sow.’”

Stacey Stratton
President/CEO, True Talent Group
Years in WPO: 4
Headquarters: Edina
Inception: 2008 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Staffing and recruitment for marketing, creative and interactive talent
Description: We match top talent with jobs they love and provide companies with the best talent to solve their business challenge.
Advice: “WPO has helped me in my personal growth as a business leader. It is a one-of-a-kind organization that drives women to excel.”

Susan Thayer
Owner/president, Rabbit Creek LLC
Years in WPO: 3
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Inception: 2009 Revenue: >$2 million
Industry: Interior Design (Home Furnishings, Art and Lighting)
Description: Own and operate wholesale showrooms in International Market Square for the interior design trade.  
Web: hickorychair.com, boliercomn.com, vcgallerymn.com, phxartgroup.com
Advice: “In the industry I serve, women make 90% of the buying decisions. As a woman, I have the ability to relate to and understand their needs.”

Gloria Freeman
CEO, Olu’s Home Inc.
Years in WPO: <1
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Inception: 1999 Revenue: $3.5 Million
Industry: Human Services
Description: We serve seniors over age 65 and adults with mental health concerns.
Advice: “Keep your eyes on the prize and remember why you’re there.”

Mahtab Rezai
Principal & CEO, Crux Collaborative
Years in WPO: 1
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Inception: 2005 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Product and application design, interactive
Description: User experience consulting.
Advice: “Being in the field of technology requires you to be flexible, to think creatively, and to develop solutions in the face of many challenges — despite initial attempts resulting in failure.”

Kimpa Moss
COO & partner, Lurie LLP
Years in WPO: 3
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Inception: 1940 Revenue: $25-30 Million
Industry: Accounting
Description: Tax, accounting and business advisory services to privately-owned companies.
Advice: “This is an incredible industry for any young woman who is talented and craves the intellectual challenge of interesting work.”

Cheri Beranek
President and CEO, Clearfield
YEARS IN WPO: 7
Headquarters: Brooklyn Park
Inception: 2008 Revenue: $60 Million
Industry: Manufacturing/Telecommunications
Description: Designs, manufactures and markets fiber management and connectivity solutions for broadband service providers.
Advice: “LISTEN to everyone around you — you’ll learn how to grow faster than your competition.”

Mary Lou Cohen
President, Relocation Today
Years in WPO: 1
Headquarters: St. Louis Park
Inception: 1994 Revenue: $3.4 - $4 Million
Industry: Global Mobility Management
Description: Third party corporate relocation management services.
Advice: “It is not gender that defines success — it is commitment, humility and true passion.”

Sandy Hansen-Wolff
Owner and president, AgVenture Feed & Seed Inc.
Years in WPO: 7
Headquarters: Watkins
Inception:1972 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Agribusiness
Description: AgVenture is a regional feed retailer focusing primarily on beef and dairy farm nutrition and management.
Advice: “What started as a tragic situation with me as a young widow taking over a business of which I knew nothing, has created a platform for a dynamic speaking and consulting business — sandyhansenwolff.com.”

Beth Miller
COO, Bluespire Marketing
Years in WPO: 1
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Inception: 1973 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Healthcare, Financial Services
Description: Provides marketing services blending strategy, technology and content.
Advice: “Don’t  be afraid to take on challenges that frighten you. They are your greatest opportunities to shine and grow.”

Carey Lindeman
President/founder, Promise Care & Welcome Baby Care
Years in WPO: 2
Headquarters: Edina
Inception: 2005 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Home health care and wellness
Description: Provides in-home care for aging adults, people post-surgery, mothers and babies
Advice: “WPO is like a board of directors. We always have each other’s best interest at heart even if it’s not the answer we want to hear.”

Kate Grathwol
President and CEO, Vision Loss Resources
Years in WPO: 7
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Inception: 1917 Revenue: $12 Million
Industry: Social Enterprise
Description: Provides services, skills and support to people with vision loss.
Advice: “See things holistically. When the world changes right beneath your feet, reinventing your organization while keeping everything moving is possible only if you see the whole system.”
 
Maggie Linvill Smith
President, Linvill Properties Inc.
Years in WPO: 7
Revenue: Undisclosed
Headquarters: Burnsville
Inception:1967
Industry: Property and Real Estate Management
Description: Develops and manages commercial real estate.
Advice: “Know your stuff, cultivate interpersonal skills; consider other perspectives, and be razor-sharp on the analytical side (that, and never wear heels when touring a construction site!).”

Katie Prokop Christmas
CEO, Arrowhead Promotion and Fulfillment
Years in WPO: 1
Headquarters: Grand Rapids
Inception: 1983 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Marketing
Description: Help clients engage customers by building awareness, loyalty and sales.

Julie Bruber
President, Persolvent
Years in WPO: 1
Headquarters: St. Paul
Inception: 1993 Revenue: Undisclosed
Industry: Payment Solutions
Description: Payment processing for e-commerce merchants, retail, schools, law firms, banks, governments and medical professionals.
Advice:“Innovative ideas that solve people’s problems are the key to success. Also, speed to market. If you’re slow, you’ll fail.”

Others:

Cindy Banchy
Owner, Vanguard Cleaning Systems of Minnesota

 

 

 

 

Sue Anderson
Vice President, VisionBank
Minneapolis

 

 

 

 

Susan Denk
Owner, White Crane Construction
Minneapolis

 

 

 

 

Brigid O’Malley
President, Reiling Construction
St. Paul

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